Restraint as Presence: How it Positions us to Lead

The Battle Within

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The Roman philosopher Seneca[1] tells us that “fear keeps pace with hope.” He adds that this should not surprise us because “each belongs to a mind in suspense, a mind hanging on what the future might bring.” Thus, our greatest advantage as a species, our foresight, “is turned to a disadvantage.” 

Moderation in all things is a theme in Stoic philosophy. It’s a calming attitude. It’s attuned to the unease aroused by anxiety and unconscious desires. It operates in the background of our mind. It’s awakened by a somatic awareness of tension and mental-emotional feelings of distress or confusion.   

Sixteen hundred years later, Spinoza, in early modernity, rekindles the Stoic interest in emotions. He cautions us in his ethics about preoccupations (worries, fears, desires) that pull us into the future, dulling us to the living now. It disrupts our capacities to know what is true, good, right.

A Universal Theme

In the East, Buddha, like his Western counterpart, Socrates, was seeking to discover what is real, good, and true in human experience. Buddha’s insights and instructional guidance were captured in cannons and taught by a “priesthood”, whereas Socrates’ legacy was a dialogical moral philosophy. 

Neither was black-and-white in their teachings (although Buddhism became a more doctrinal tradition). Both believed that enlightenment and living a good life is an experiential journey. Socrates emphasized rigorous rational-ethical inquiry, while for Buddha a discipline of meditation was central. 

For both there was a social context. It was a sangha (spiritual community) for Buddha and the polis for Socrates. Equanimity (Buddha) and an attitude of not-knowing[2] (Socrates) were the mind states they encouraged. My point: Both cultural traditions encouraged moderation, restraint. 

Cultural Differences and Pathways

Arguably, the Western tradition is the more active of the two. But both believe mere activity is fruitless. It is through calming our passions and clear, considered judgment that we’re able to see and understand what is really happening. In this situation the True, Good, and Right become manifest. 

In this state of mind, with manifest truths before us, we are much more likely to be en-couraged to act in accordance with the truth. We are more likely, too, to see how the True, Good, and Right converge to inform our conduct, to help us see what we owe to one another, and how we must live.

In psychotherapy and group dynamics, we learn that we must trust the process, not try to force the agenda. It is similar in these traditions of reflective restraint. If we simply trust the power of a clear, calm, open mind to see, and to be properly moved by what is seen, things usually work out.


[1] Seneca was a Stoic philosopher, born in 5 BC and died in 65 AD. Stoic philosophy emphasized balance as a virtue, and sought, in the Socratic tradition, to live a life of moderation that also to live in peace with Nature.

[2] For Socrates it was our capacity for openness and our readiness to accept our ignorance (not-knowing) that was critical to the search for truth, especially concerning how to live the good life.

Stress, Strain & Burnout: What to do?

In our 24/7 world of commerce, time pressures and trying to do more with less are not uncommon. But while trying to seek a cost advantage, we often suffer cost increases due to the effects of burnout on performance, productivity, and turnover. What makes this more problematic in today's job market is that our most talented people have other choices.

Elements of the Downward Spiral

Stress in the workplace is multiply caused. It's not all in our head, although the way we perceive and interpret our experience (cognitive appraisal) plays an important role. But the social-organizational environment plays a role too: Is there a spirit of optimism, energy, and success? Is there a feeling of vital engagement? Is it a place where our supervisor and our colleagues care about us, support us, encourage our growth and development?

Strain is physical deterioration induced by constant stress and overwork. When stress becomes chronic, it wears us down mentally, emotionally, and physically. We may find that our patterns sleep, exercise, leisure activities, and diet change for the worse. As a result, we become less effective, efficient, and productive. It shows in our performance and in our attitudes toward others. We may become more cynical about work and stakeholders.

Burnout is depletion. At this point, we are emotionally exhausted. Our sense of vital engagement with the organization is at a very low ebb. Our stores of hope, confidence, and resilience are long gone. It’s no longer a condition that can be cured with a long weekend or a pep talk. Work demands that used to be a source of challenge, activating best efforts and spawning creative solutions are now mere burdens. We’re just making it through the day.

Engagement as the Opposite of Burnout

Engagement can be defined as the opposite of burnout: high energy, strong involvement, and a sense of person/professional efficacy. It has also been defined as "a persistent, positive affective-motivational state of fulfillment that is characterized by the three components of vigor, dedication, and absorption." And much of it depends on the supervisory relationship.

Building engagement is one of the best approaches to preventing burnout. It's a primary prevention strategy. It builds coping resources and resilience, and it rewards skill in using them to make adaptive interventions and change, especially among supervisors and leaders. As a result, people have reason to believe that problems can and will be addressed.

Defining a Healthy Workplace

It's not surprising that a healthy workplace is usually associated with high engagement scores. If you can keep your eye on these six factors, you will be a very attractive employer even in today's market:

  1. Sustainable workload - notice when it becomes a strain (you may see it before they do)
  2. Choice and control - any professional work wants autonomy, freedom to make choices
  3. Recognition and reward - let others know personally that they're seen and appreciated
  4. Supportive work community - intervene on "bad" behaviors and reward teamwork
  5. Fairness, respect, and social justice - the appearance of favoritism screams unfairness
  6. Clear values and meaningful work - ensure fidelity to values in your words & actions

What People Really Want

Feeling noticed, included, and having a fair "shot" at advancing and developing is important, especially for early-career people. If they perceive that there are favorites, an in-group and an out-group, they'll feel unfairly treated. The capacity of supervisors/leaders to let people know where they stand in open, honest two-way communications is critical.

Some supervisors and leaders inadvertently send a rejecting message by not communicating on these matters as clearly and regularly as they should. Demonstrated, good-faith efforts to provide feedback and ongoing coaching tells people they do have a shot. And it positions management to more accurately appraise the potential of their people.

NOTE: I've drawn upon the work of Christina Maslach, University of California, Berkely in this article, especially "Finding Solutions to The Problem of Burnout" in Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 2017, Volume 69, Number 2, 143-152.

When We “Muscle Through”

The expression “muscle through” asserts an attitude and approach to action that is direct, deliberate, and persistent. It’s often invoked in times of crisis as a call for intense, time-limited effort to avert a setback. As a special-situation, it makes a claim on us to go above and beyond. It’s not a sustainable way of functioning. But that’s the issue. All too often it becomes a norm. 



Muscle Through to Burnout

I recently found myself working with a talented early-career professional who was reporting symptoms of burnout. She had been recruited by a former boss to join a start-up. She was attracted by the promise of being a part of building something, having a seat at the table. Alas, it turned out that what he wanted most was her “work ethic,” which to him meant her capacity for doing good work, but also a capacity for self-sacrifice. 

He got what he wanted from her. But she soon discovered that her willingness to muscle through tight time requirements had become a norm. Constantly on the road, away from friends and her significant other, there were no signs of change on the horizon. Meanwhile, her boss seemed to be opting for a different norm, 4 to 6-hour work days, unexplained absences. 

She felt exploited, resentful, betrayed. She was ready to leave, and the recruiters were calling. Her boss responded with apparent puzzlement when she gave her notice. Others in the firm piled on with even less sensitivity: “How could she?” 

Could this have really been a surprise to her boss and others? Or had they banked on her “whatever-it-takes” will to work as a given? Was she a person whose feelings, thoughts, desires, and goals they cared about? Or had she been objectified as a “resource”? 

And what about her role in all of this? Had she noticed and voiced her concerns as they arose? Even more basic, had she clarified what was expected of her in advance? And perhaps most important, was she able to learn something from this experience? 

The Coaching Dialogue

We would explore all these questions in time, but first we chose to take an in-depth look at her as a person. It was not for purposes of finding her flaws and fixing her. Rather, it was about freeing her to see her life and career as it really is, and to do this in an unrushed relationship that allows her experience to “speak for itself” and to be heard and understood. 

This involved a semi-structured conversation about her personal history, from childhood to adulthood, including career choices and experience, up to and including her current life, relationships, and work situation. But we also used some assessment instruments, and we jointly interpreted the results in the context of her life, personal tendencies, and career experience. 

How could we not come to greater insight when addressing our questions in this richer context of mutual awareness? I’m a psychologist with a good deal of business experience, but it was she who most often saw the threads of meaning that were of greatest practical consequence. My job was to be the Socratic “nuisance” who prompted reflection and encouraged her to speak from her heart. 

As Albert Schweitzer observed over 100 years ago, we only needed to activate the “doctor within.” As this subjective center of insight and thought was catalyzed and freed to speak, she came home to herself again for the first time. The external locus of control, including her habit of looking outside for answers and approval, lost its grip. Her confidence and capacity for wisdom and judgment grew. 

When We Muscle Through

When we muscle through, we immerse ourselves in a course of action for a purpose. Be prudent, even fussy, about how frequently you indulge this immersion. Be critical when examining why these calls to action are arising too frequently. When succumbing to these dysfunctional patterns, we sacrifice more than a few hours or days. We sacrifice our mindful awareness and our freedom to function as persons.              

A Coach's Motto: Measure Twice, Cut Once

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The carpenter’s motto urges care. In fact, it’s more like an ethical imperative. It's responsive to a virtue of excellence in one's trade. But it’s also a virtue of promise-keeping: “You can rely on me. I’ll do it the right way. No shortcuts.” So, too, with coaching we owe our clients nothing less.

We use neither a tape measure nor a saw. Rather, we use cultivated relational skills to enter the world of our client, to listen and discern themes of importance, to press with compassion for more disclosure where hesitation or fear might close off access to issues of consequence. We do this jointly, collaboratively. 

We do this because it's only through our allied efforts of exploration and discovery that we build the will and confidence of our clients to see things as they really are. Their defenses so often protect them from harm by sounding retreat, but, like an overprotective mother, they can over-learn this function. 

In the intimacy of a coaching relationship we create conditions of trust, openness, and care. As a pair, we calm fears with assurance that looking will not harm us and examining will free us. Free us for what? It will free us to gain perspective, the query assumptions, to consider alternatives. 

Even this simple norm and skill of critical appraisal is enough to calm the “overprotective mother.” We are telling her, “Fear not, we will be prudent, we’ll act with care, and a path of retreat, support, and encouragement will always be available. Looking and examining is not yet decision-making.” 

These normative considerations create the safe space for clients to reappraise their capacity to face their fears, to assert their claims and control over deliberation and decision-making. This kind of strength, first cultivated in the coaching alliance, becomes the voice of a more self-possessed person (client). 

The contents of our conversations, the focal themes of our experiments with new ways of thinking, feeling, and acting, and all that has meaning and practical relevance, becomes visible, meaningful, and manageable because it arises within a relational context that empower the client to assert control. 

In doing this, clients not only establish an internal locus of control and increased self-efficacy, they adaptively shape their sense of self and identity as persons. Our self adaptively grows and thrives, or it retreats and stagnates. The challenges that create pain, evoke fears, and prompt self-doubt, they’re our call to action. 

Self Divided or Self Integrated? Your Choice

This graphic illustrates the nature of this developmental dynamic. I've written a short article on the topic. It's also the focus of an experiential program that I facilitate for groups. Its benefits are deeply personal and provide many positive impacts within the organization. We've talked about bringing our whole self to work for years - maybe it's time to start doing it.

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